Portable Stove Options

An increasing number of people are building up a reserve of supplies as a hedge against the disasters and the unknown. This reserve commonly includes a supply of extra food. However, how this food is going to be prepared is sometimes overlooked. If an event occurs that knocks out the power, then microwaves, electric ranges, toaster ovens and many other kitchen appliances will be “down for the count” until service is restored. People who have gas ranges or a grill on their back porch will have some options, as long as gas lines are working and there is propane in the grill’s tank. Even then, these cooking devices are not portable and it would be a good idea to have a backup plan, if only so you don’t have to start the day by lighting up the BBQ grill in the rain, just to make your morning coffee.

There are a number of portable stoves available online, in sporting goods and outdoors stores all over the country. Many of these stoves can be used at your home, carried on a car trip or in a pack/bag if you are traveling. There is no one stove that does everything perfectly. All of the different models have tradeoffs in features. The units that are the faster at boiling water tend to trade off simmering ability. The more compact and lighter stoves will have fewer features than the larger, heavier ones. The easier to use stoves have more specific fuel requirements than multifuel stoves. However, those can take a bit of tinkering to run well. To handle all of this complexity, we will break all of the commonly available stoves into categories based on the type of fuel they use and then take a look at examples that represent the “best of” each of those groups.

Wood Stoves
Wood fueled cooking has come a long way from three rocks around a campfire. The modern versions of these stoves focus on ease of use and efficiency. They range from homemade models like the “hobo style” tin can stove or Nimblewill Nomad’s sheet metal stove to hand polished production models like the Emberlit. Since these stoves are, essentially, a metal box that holds the wood fire and points most of the heat towards your cookpot, they generally do not have moving parts to break. Temperature control simply involves adding more or less wood. And, wood fuel can be picked up off of the ground almost everywhere for free. The better units can boil a pot of water with a big handful of sticks and twigs or larger pieces or wood that have been split down. I’ve easily been able to gather enough fuel to run one of these stoves out of my backyard in just a few minutes.

EmberLit Stove

The most interesting of the wood fueled stoves that I’ve had a chance to work with is the Emberlit Stove. It consists of five pieces of either laser cut stainless steel or titanium that lock together to make a rugged box, which holds the cooking fire and serves as a pot stand. It is a good idea to follow the directions the first time you put the stove together, as they walk you through the easiest way to connect the pieces. After setting it up the first few times, though, you should be able to have it out of it’s case and ready to go in less than a minute. When assembled, this stove will support the weight of my cast iron dutch oven. The Emberlit is extremely easy to store, since the pieces stack like playing cards to pack away flat and slide into the side pocket of a duffel bag or backpack. You could literally stow the stove in a car’s glove box, under the owner’s manual. Also, the titanium version weighs in at just under 6 oz. If you pick up wood from around where you are cooking, then this becomes a six ounce stove, with no additional weight for fuel. A stove like the Emberlit would be an excellent choice for your emergency bag.

Emberlit Packed

Good Wood fuel is usually free, often easy to find and will not run out, as long as there are sticks and twigs around. These stoves can be amongst the smallest and most lightweight options. Wood fuel can deliver a small version of “campfire ambiance” and these stoves will roast up a proper marshmallow. Wood burning stoves that feed from the side are worth extra consideration, as they do not require you to keep moving your cookpot to add fuel..

Bad Burning wood creates ashes and some smoke, so these stoves would best be used outdoors, even if this is just on top of a cookie sheet on your patio. If you are messing about with trying to make your own stove, stick with using non-zinc plated metal. Zinc fume poisoning can kill you in a rather nasty way.

Woodgas Stoves
Woodgas stoves are a modern twist on the idea of a wood fueled stove. They “cook” the various organic gasses out of wood and then burn those gasses as a fuel source. Using woodgas as a fuel has been around since the mid 1800s, but has only recently found it’s way into smaller stoves. The process works by having the stove first burn the wood and then a secondary source of oxygen mixes in above the fire to create a flammable atmosphere with the gasses from the wood, which is also burned. Woodgas stoves tend to be very efficient, if designed properly. A fair amount of engineering goes into getting the right amount of air in the right place, at the right time for the process to work as intended. Once you’ve cooked on one of these, you’ll see that it does not run the same way as a traditional wood stove.

Solo Stove

The Solo Stove is a good example of a portable woodgas stove. This stove, as well as the more expensive, but quite similar, Bushbuddy stove and homemade woodgas tin can stoves, are all very similar in design. They use the same, basic “can within a can” layout that is common to these types of burners. Basically, the outer can is made to allow air to get both up under the burning wood, as well as above the wood, where the woodgasses will be produced. The inner can has a grate of some sort on the bottom that allows airflow up through the wood fuel and holes near the top for the burning of the woodgasses.

In use, these types of stoves do very well, once they get burning. You do have to do a little more prep work with the wood, as it needs to be able to fit inside the stove, which means plan for some extra time to make short pieces of wood. This is easily accomplished with a knife or a hatchet or just by breaking the sticks into appropriately sized pieces.

Solo Stove

Good Wood fuel is usually free, often easy to find and will not run out, as long as there are sticks and twigs around. Woodgas stoves are a very fuel efficient design. Wood fuel can deliver a small version of “campfire ambiance” and these stoves will also roast up a proper marshmallow. Smaller woodgas stoves, like the Solo Stove, can often be stored inside the pot that you set on top of them, when they are packed away.

Bad Burning wood creates ashes and some smoke, so these stoves would best be used outdoors, even if this is just on top of a cookie sheet on your patio. Woodgas stoves tend to be among the more expensive types of portable wood stove.

Liquid Fuel Stoves
Liquid fuel stoves, which most often use white gas as a fuel, have been made for many years in countless models by companies such as Coleman, MSR and Primus. There are plenty of new and used ones out there, including some older military surplus models. I once had a neat, old surplus M1950 stove that hadn’t been used in years burn through about two hours’ worth of fuel in just over two minutes. The plume of fire jetting out of the top was really impressive. So, if you do find a good deal on an older, used stove, make sure to check it out thoroughly for leaks or dried out seals before reaching for the matches. Also, make sure you can find a source of replacement o-rings or gaskets to get it back up and keep it running. On fairly recent stoves, this usually isn’t a big problem, but on older models, it can be a concern.

An example of a good, modern liquid fuel stove is the MSR Whisperlite. MSR has been making this stove since 1984 and there are a few models that are variations on this basic design. In 1996, there was a bit of a change to the design with the introduction of the Shaker Jet, which added a trapped weighted needle inside the stove. This allows the fuel jet opening to be cleaned by inverting the stove and shaking it, before use. If the jet becomes clogged on older stoves, they are cleaned by inserting a small piece of wire into the jet to manually knock stuff loose. If you are shopping for a used stove and it rattles when you shake it up and down, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is broken, just one of the newer Shaker Jet stoves.

Whisperlite Stove Packed

One of the most interesting variations, from the preparedness point of view, in the WhisperLite line is the “International” model, which is the multi-fuel version that will run on white gas (also known as Coleman fuel), kerosene or unleaded gas. In order to change fuels, you do have to change out the brass jet nozzle, but the little wrench to do this comes with the stove. Having the option to use multiple fuel sources in an emergency is always an advantage.

All white gas type stoves are similar in operation. First, fuel is added to the fuel tank then the stove is pumped up to pressurize the tank. Then, the stove is warmed up, so that the fuel is hot and vaporized. Usually, this means that the stove is turned on for a few seconds, just a bit to leak out a little fuel, which is then lit and allowed to burn. These stoves will run rough until the metal tube that feeds fuel into the burner is heated up. Once the stove is warmed up, the fuel can be turned up and the stove will run well. One trick that will reduce the black soot that forms on the stove and the excitement of lighting it up, is to carry a small bottle of alcohol fuel to use just for priming, but this is by no means a necessity.

Whisperlite Stove Setup

Good The Whisperlite International is a multifuel stove that will run on fuels found all over the world. It has a relatively simple design and a cheap spare parts kit is available with extra o rings, etc. for recent models. There are plenty of these stoves available, both new and gently used. The shelf life of an unopened can of white gas is five to seven years and it is available by the gallon in Wal-Marts, Hardware and Sporting Goods stores all over the country. White gas stoves also perform quite well in cold weather, which can be a problem for some other designs.

Bad Lighting this and most other white gas stoves is an adventure than can endanger the hair on your arms and your eyebrows, if you aren’t careful. While cooking, the Whisperlite is actually pretty loud, since it works on the same basic principle as a little jet engine. Most white gas stoves do not include piezoelectric push button ignition, but this is easily fixed by carrying matches or a lighter.

Alcohol Stoves
Alcohol stoves have become increasingly popular in recent years, due to their ultra-simple design, often with no moving parts to fail. This style of stove has been made out of everything from titanium to cat food and soda cans. I remember when, years ago, a good hiking buddy of mine was the first person around to get his hands on a Trangia set of cooking gear. The next time we were out, standing on top of an ice and snow covered mountain, he pulled it out to make a hot lunch. It was freezing, with the wind pushing the cold right through you. He got everything set up, held the flaming match over the puddle of alcohol In the middle of the stove and…nothing happened. The moral of this story being that if it’s really cold, plan to spend some quality time cuddling with you stove and fuel bottle to warm them up enough for the alcohol to vaporize and the stove to work.

Svea Stove

Alcohol stoves are typified by the Trangia and Svea style of burners. Although they are made by two different companies, they use the same basic design and materials. The Svea is usually found, often at a bargain price, as part of the old style Swedish military mess kits. They are basically a small, double-walled brass can with some holes near the top edge. A screw on lid can be twisted on to the top to seal the stove shut. However, the lid should not be put on the stove while it is still hot, or the rubber o-ring on the inside might melt. The soda can and other variations of this basic design generally do not have a lid option, as a way of saving weight. Whether store bought or homemade, these are small, inexpensive, lightweight stoves.

To use an alcohol stove, you measure out and pour a little fuel into the top of the stove. Then you light it. To turn the stove off, you either snuff it out or just let the fuel in the stove burn out. That is pretty much it. The big selling point of these stoves is that they are just dead simple to use. They are very quiet when running and burn so clean that the flame can literally be hard to see in the daytime, so double check before grabbing a hot stove. As for fuel, the cans of denatured alcohol in the paint department of most any hardware store works great. Autoparts stores also carry a gas additive called HEET in a yellow bottle that is a common fuel choice. Since alcohol contains less stored energy than white gas or most other fuels, you should plan on storing more fuel and water taking a little longer to boil when using an alcohol stove.

Pepsi Can Stove

Good Alcohol stoves like the Svea are quiet, with no moving parts to break. They can be inexpensive to buy for a well-made, brass unit. Also, a simple burner can be made in an afternoon out of soda cans with a pocket knife, for those so inclined. Alcohol is by far one of the safer stove fuels. Also, the shelf life of an unopened can of alcohol from the hardware store is indefinite.

Bad Alcohol stoves are not as fast at boiling water as some other stoves. It is also hard to light in cold weather without preheating the stove with either bodyheat, a candle, lighter, etc. This fuel doesn’t hold as much energy as some others, so more of it is needed, which can add up over longer periods of time. It is not safe to use any other kind of fuel in an alcohol stove. These little burners really require a windscreen of some kind to work efficiently, but this can be as simple a piece of aluminum foil, with a little tweaking.

Canister Stoves
Canister stoves have evolved over the years from primitive and bulky designs into some of the most engineered systems available. Although some of these stoves have shrunk down to pocked sized proportions, the real standouts in the field are the complete cook systems.

All of the stoves in this category run on small canisters of pressurized gas. Most stove companies have their own “proprietary mix” of butane, isobutene, etc., but the vast majority of the ones found in the United States are compatible with each other, since they use the same standardized type of Lindal valve following the EN417 specification. From the preparedness standpoint, this means that your modern canister stove will run just fine on any Jetboil, SnowPeak, MSR or Primus canisters that you can screw onto it. A few different sizes of these fuel tanks can be found online and in most any sporting goods store. Some canisters might work a little bit better in really cold weather, other might put out a smidge more heat, but they will all work.

JetBoil Stove

The standout in this field for a complete cook system is indeed the Jetboil. While some of the other stoves may include some sort of windscreen, a piezoelectric lighter and sometimes even a storage can that can be used as a pot, the Jetboil blends all of these together into a well thought out system. The real deal breaker, though, is the built in heat exchanger that is attached to the bottom of the pot. The heat exchanger takes much of the heat that would usually just escape around the edges of the pot and pulls it into heating the contents of the pot. The end result of this is that you boil water faster, with less fuel.

JetBoil Stove

Good These stoves start up with instant full power and now priming. They light up at the push of a button on the models that have piezoelectric ignition. The ones like the Jetboil are an all in one cooking unit, with room for the burner and one fuel cartridge inside the packed stove. The compressed gas fuel cartridges store a good bit of energy, so they last through multiple cooking sessions. When cooking just for myself, I’ve used one cartridge for a full week. They are also easy to store, since everything packs away together. These stoves will boil water extremely quickly.

Bad These stoves run only on fuel canisters, but at least you don’t have to only buy the ones made by the stove’s manufacturer. Most other brands work just fine, unless they are a proprietary cartridge, such as some of the blue Camping Gaz brand. Fuel cartridges have a minimum shelf life of three years, due to the Lindal valve possibly developing leaks or sticking as they age, but this seems to be relatively uncommon on properly stored fuel. Storing fuel canisters in your car on a really hot summer day could turn out to be a rather bad idea. While great at boiling water, jetboil stoves don’t simmer well, but this is not true of all canister stoves.

Butane Burner Stoves
These are single burner units that run on butane cartridges. They are similar in design to the side burner on fancier gas BBQ grills. There are multiple brand names that appear on these types of stoves, but none of the ones I’ve had the chance to examine were drastically different in design from any of the others. The biggest difference often seems to be the color. The one in my collection is branded by Sterno, a US company, but made in China. That said, I haven’t had any problems with it yet and it certainly seems to be a quality unit. Turning the gas knob all the way to the left sparks a small piezoelectric igniter to start the stove. The unit comes in a pretty nice plastic box for storage.

Butane Stove

These stoves are often marketed towards the food service industry, so they can be more difficult to find locally unless you have a store that supplies restaurants and caterers. They are, of course, available online. Most of these run on a standardized 8oz can of butane fuel that will burn for around an hour and a half to two hours. The biggest issue can be finding a local source of fuel. The same places that sell the stoves should carry the butane cartridges, as well as some ethnic markets and the occasional sporting goods store.

Butane Stove

Good The big advantage to this type of burner is that it is quite similar to the top of a gas range in appearance and function. It will allow you to cook in a way that should be generally familiar. The fuel control knob has enough range to allow you to simmer food or boil water pretty well.

Bad These stoves run on fuel cartridges that can be quite hard to find outside of specialty stores. They are large enough that they represent the upper limits of what could be realistically “portable” for an emergency preparedness stove.

Solid Fuel Stoves
These stoves are a varied lot, grouped together by their use of some kind of solid, manmade fuel. They range from the Stove in a Can brand which burns discs made of wood chips and wax, to Esbit stoves which run on trioxane or hexamine chemical pellets, to Sterno stoves which are powered by cans of jellied alcohol. With all of the other fuel choices out there, it really is hard to get excited about one of these stoves. If I wanted a stove I could leave in the trunk of my car for emergencies and I lived somewhere in the frozen tundra, then something like a Stove in a Can might be worth considering. Otherwise, the price of the “fuel cell” woodchip biscuits for this stove is alarming.

If you just need a really small stove sized for heating up food or water for a single person for a couple of days, then the Esbit is a decent choice from the solid fuel lineup. You can pick one up with half a dozen fuel pellets for around twelve dollars. One thing to keep in mind with these, though is that the burning fuel pellets can produce some rather nasty chemicals, so all cooking would best be done outside.

Esbit Stove

The big selling point of Sterno is that it’s safe and simple. Pop the lid, light the pink goo and you’ve got gentle flames. If you knock it over, the wad of alcohol goop will probably stay in the can, much like cranberry sauce does when making a Thanksgiving dinner. When you are done cooking, just slide the lid back on and let the stove cool. But, Sterno doesn’t put out much heat by modern stove standards and is more expensive in the long run than many of the other options. There is no easy way to refill a can of Sterno.

Good These stoves can be amongst the simplest of the stove/fuel combos. If you ignore fuel costs, they are inexpensive. They tend to use stable fuel with a long shelf life. Many of the solid fuel stoves would be a good choice for a disposable stove.

Bad The solid fuel tends to range from somewhat expensive to very expensive. The stoves are usually designed to only work with one specific fuel type, usually made by the stove’s manufacturer. Solid fuel tablets can produce fumes from burning that can have nasty chemicals in them. A tall windscreen around the pot is a good idea, as the heat output on these is less than a liquid fuel stove. These stoves do tend to produce ashes or other residue, except for Sterno. Controlling the heat output of a solid fuel stove can bit a bit more of a challenge than with some of the other stove types. Unless someone wants a “disposable stove”, they might very well be better off looking into one of the other categories.



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